Floyd J. Phillips grew up in Michigan and died there, but his comedy influence also spread to the Pacific Northwest. Phillips died April 6, after more than 35 years on and off of dialysis.
He won the Seattle International Comedy Competition in 2000, and made the finals the following year in the San Francisco competition. His club bios talked about how he grew up in the Chicago ghetto, but Phillips attended high school and college in Flint and Grand Rapids, Mich., and eventually made his way west to pursue stand-up comedy.
He performed anywhere, anytime, from comedy clubs to cruise ships, one-nighters in rough bars to USO tours overseas.
Auggie Smith wrote: “Floyd and I started in comedy together in Portland along time ago. Floyd and I knew each other so long we were once on a weeklong comedy show called ‘the young guns of comedy.’”
And from Kermet Apio:
“So sad to hear that Floyd J Phillips has passed.
Might have been 1996. Floyd and I drive to a gig in northern Idaho, a budget “resort” on a lake that was basically converted mobile homes you could rent with a small building in the middle. After a long drive we stop into the building to introduce ourselves. The guy sees us and says “Oh shit, are you the comics?”
Floyd and I froze. I said a quiet “yes.” The guy proceeds to tell us that there are quite a few racists that stay at the resort and that when he booked the show he figured the agent would understand what a northern Idaho comedy show should be. As we talked with him we realized he wasn’t racist. What he said when he saw us was him worrying about our safety. We talked with him about the situation as the gears in his brain churned trying to find a solution, while both of us hoped he would say “Let’s just cancel the show and pay you anyway and you guys can head back to diversity.”
All of a sudden he paused, looked at us and said “You know what, (F) them. I ain’t cancelling a show because of some idiots and let them ruin it for the rest of the folks. If there’s any trouble I’ll kick their asses right outta here.” This was NOT the answer we wanted to hear. I appreciated his trying to be on the right side of this, but the truth of the matter is he couldn’t truly protect us.
We drove to the hotel (which was near I-90) and sat in the parking lot, thinking that before we check in we need to have a conversation. We talked and talked and weighed our options. We could see the entrance to the freeway that could take us back home. But Floyd seemed to want to stick it out (there is a good possibility he just needed the money, but he was also not the backing down type). We decided to do the gig, the plan being that my car would be parked by the door near the stage, facing the road, and whichever of us wasn’t on stage would be standing near the car with keys ready to go. I know, seems idiotic now but at the time it gave a couple of dumb 20 somethings enough comfort to stay.
The two hours in the hotel was definitely the longest two hours of my comedy career. My stomach truly hurt. The fear was unlike anything I had ever felt. We met in the lobby. I asked Floyd “We doing this?” He just said “Yup.” We drove the dark windy road to the gig in complete and unplanned silence.
The guy who hired us was as reassuring as a man could be. As we sat in the small office pretending to be a green room, he came in and said “They seem like a good group.” I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to convince himself of it. After he walked out Floyd said “Yeah, but will they be a good group when a black man and a Mexican looking Hawaiian take their stage?” I laughed for the first time in what felt like ages.
Showtime. The guy goes up and does a good job of saying it without saying it. “Hey, we want people to have a good time. That’s all we are about tonight. Just having fun. Just relax and enjoy. We don’t get professional comedians who have been on TV up here much so I’m sure we’ll show them some respect and hospitality.” And he said it with just enough sternness to convey the underlying message.
Then he introduced Floyd. I stood by the door, keys in hand. Floyd’s first joke after getting a round of applause for the guy who hired us: “Thank you folks. So Kermet, the other comedian picked me up and we drove here today. Now I’m not gonna lie, after arriving here, I was pretty sure that Kermet (pause) did not write down the directions to gig correctly. (Huge laugh) I felt like there should have been a turn near Spokane (Huge laugh with applause).”
From that moment, Floyd had them. And they were great. And the guy who hired us stayed to his word. Never went in the office. He was in the room and walked around “policing” and keeping track of how the audience members were conducting themselves. Floyd was doing so well that he did a couple of race related jokes that two hours before he never would have considered doing. And they were a blast for me as well.
After a really fun show, we realized we didn’t have to run to the car. People were very nice and thanked us. I know this is an anti-climactic ending, but it’s a good one. The sense of relief was as great as the lesson we learned. The people that came to show made us realize that along with differences there are also similarities. How could that possibly be one of our best shows to date? And yet it was.
The next morning we got in the car to drive back and the first thing Floyd says is “What the hell were we thinking?!” I cracked up.
The whole way home we talked about comedy, race, our childhoods, and we really got to know each other well because the previous day had connected us in a way that comedy gigs rarely do. We also realized we both love comedy so much that when we work together we won’t make sensible decisions to protect ourselves from possible harm.
The next time I worked with Floyd I was walking up to him to say Hi. He glared at me, paused and said “Oh shit, you one of the comics?” I laughed so hard.
The man loved comedy. His body was a constant challenge. He died too young. Rest In Peace, my friend.”
Rest in peace, Floyd.
His funeral services were being held today at Gillespie Funeral Home, 1865 Eastern Ave, Grand Rapids, MI, 49507.